Why Are So Many Modern Houses Black?

©. RAU via Inhabitat

Witold Rybczinski thinks it is because architects are lazy. I think he's wrong.

Architectural critic, writer and teacher Witold Rybczinski asks:

What’s with all the black houses that have appeared in recent years? The all-black exteriors—blackened timber, black stain, or simple black paint—have become ubiquitous....black does seem to be the modernist architect’s favorite fashion shade (Richard Rogers excepted). But fundamentally I think this phenomenon is a symptom of laziness— it’s a cheap way of standing out.
The Rock

© The Rock, Atelier General, via Architect Magazine

I think the answer is more complex than that. A hundred years ago, almost every building in cities with cold climates was black; that's because they burned coal for heat and the soot stuck to everything. Houses were often painted black, so they wouldn't look filthy all the time. Then, starting in the fifties, people started worrying about pollution, and the residential burning of coal declined as people switched to oil and then gas, and people then had options. My favorite example is from St. John's, Newfoundland:

black houses

Casey Street, St. John's/via

This photo of some houses in Newfoundland has this caption:

Located at 94 - 104 Casey Street; the two houses on the right no longer exist, and the houses at center and left still exist in an altered form....the styles and colours were prevalent in working class areas of St. John's in the 1800's.
house today

100 Casey Street today via Google Street View/via

If you go to St. John's today, the middle house in that photo looks very different, thanks to the switch to gas and the banning of coal. Now, the town is very colorful and they have even made up a backstory about it:

colorful houses

Encounter Newfoundland on the Color of St. John's/Screen capture

I suspect that for many years, architects avoided black houses because they associated it with the polluted years when everything was black, and they now finally had the freedom to use other colors, and took advantage of it. Now, fifty years later, black is no longer remembered as being predominant in cities, no longer identified with soot and filth, and is making a comeback.

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ shou siding

Lloyd Alter/ shou siding/CC BY 2.0

Another factor is the explosion of interest in Shou sugi ban, the Japanese technique of treating cedar with fire and oil. A few years ago I wrote about how it was all the rage, for good reason; wood is a renewable resource, and this treatment preserves it, resists bugs, and even improves fire resistance. And as Henry Ford used to say, it comes in any color you want, as long as it's black.

So I think Rybczinski is wrong to call architects lazy; instead, we should see this as a great thing. The world is a much cleaner place, so clean that we have forgotten why buildings were black in the first place. They are using a sustainable, renewable material with a traditional finish with one big limitation -- it only comes in black (or very dark brown). That's not lazy, it's smart.

And then, of course, there is the Calvin conundrum:

Calvin and hobbes

© Bill Waterson